The Ascent of the Gothic Tower is a brief but evocative parser-based story by Ryan Veeder, originally released as part of Storybundle but now available to play for free.
It describes an exploration: the protagonist is trying to get into the titular Gothic tower, a difficult-to-reach space on campus. That impulse to enter and explore the forbidden spaces enclosed in public areas (especially college campuses) is one of the primordial urges behind the text adventure genre. Certainly at my college campus, there was quite a bit of hobby overlap: the same sorts of people who played and discussed text adventures were the ones who had accounts on the Unix system; organized small illicit tours of the college’s steam tunnels, attics, and basements; and who practiced recreational lock-picking.
The Ascent of the Gothic Tower concerns the longing to understand infrastructure and (most of all) to reach locations that are inherently interesting but perhaps off limits. It reflects on the transgressive behavior required to map out secret spaces, behavior (like taking objects and trespassing just because a door has been left unlocked) that classic text adventures usually reward unproblematically. Gothic Tower depicts a mentality that is isolated and even actively antisocial, furtive, made uncomfortable by ordinary human comings and goings. From the very first room of the game, the narrator indicates this distance and alienation:
A couple of kids are sitting on a blanket nearby, pawing at each other like there’s nobody else around—and wouldn’t that be nice?
They stare into each other’s eyes; they whisper; at intervals they kiss.
By “wouldn’t that be nice,” you didn’t mean that it would be nice to be necking outdoors in front of everyone. The thing that would be nice is the hypothetical situation in which there’s nobody else around.
>talk to kids
You mutter a hello, and the two kids look up to you with apprehensive smiles.
These themes resonate with some of Veeder’s earlier work, but are more darkly presented here. The childlike, exuberant exploration of church spaces in Robin & Orchid gives way to paranoia and anxiety; the protagonist flinches from the presence of other people, and frets anxiously about each trespassing step taken on the path to the tower. The protagonist is also, incidentally, carrying a photocopied image of a monster that might be a cockatrice or might be a basilisk, and which can destroy with a glance — a strong figure for how much the protagonist does not want either to see or to be seen by other people.
Meanwhile there’s relatively little of the humor of Veeder’s lighter work. His characteristic narrative asides remain (“By ‘wouldn’t that be nice,’ you didn’t mean…”), but they’re somewhat more caustic than in many another context.
The result is curiously melancholy. There are any number of games that offer some metacommentary on the conventions of their own genres, and within these a smaller set of IF games that explicitly call out the antisocial behavior and implicit loneliness of the traditional IF protagonist. Most of the latter are meant to be funny (Zero Sum Game requires a misbehaving protagonist to put back an inventory of stolen treasures, for instance), though Endless, Nameless arguably reflects more seriously on the kind of people who are required to make and play classic text adventures. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower takes this a step further, however. Rather than focusing on the peculiarities of the genre convention, it depicts seriously a protagonist who truly feels like a Nameless Adventurer, a person for whom the abandoned building full of locked doors and mysterious signs is not only natural but almost the only kind of setting in which they can be at rest.